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March 2020 was when COVID impact started in Pakistan. Prior to that, it was something we heard was happening in other countries. We did not consider that it would arrive here, but it did. Our response was as tentative as the rest of the world and it cannot be criticized. The whole world was fighting an unknown entity.
The world is still clearly divided between developed and developing (read under-developed) countries, though we do not say that anymore. This divide has several implications which are primarily related to resources and facilities, which are again related to economic resources. The developed world approached the COVID issue from several angles. They initiated scientific inquiry immediately to understand what it was and how to handle it. They started finding treatments and prophylaxis measures simultaneously. They took measures to protect people through work from home, remote offices and so on. In summary, they faced the COVID challenge scientifically, medically, socially, organizationally and economically.
We and the other countries like us took much longer to respond, and our response was limited to some medical effort (highly commendable due to individual dedication), some social measures and some economic measures. There is criticism and there is appreciation for whatever steps were taken. However, we must realize that government alone cannot do much if public support is not there.
So, let us talk about what public response and learning has been so far and it is continuing.
Lockdown was announced during March 2020. At first, the people refused to follow it. When it was imposed more officially, there were efforts to somehow evade it. The visible parts of businesses had to be closed but behind the doors and behind the scenes, violation of lockdown continued. The enforcers found new avenues of making money.
I was once meeting a British guy with regards to some business deal between his company and the company I worked for. He was telling about his background and past work. During gulf war of 1990, he was working in Saudi Arabia for a company that was importing and marketing food items. He said he had gone to UK on vacations and after a few days, war started. He called his CEO in KSA and told her he was coming back immediately, and he needed 500 million Riyals. The Sheikha asked why? To which he replied, ‘where there is war, there is always money to make’. This is precisely our learning also during COVID. Wherever there is pandemic, there is money to make.
We learnt new ways of making money during COVID. Masks and sanitizers worth billions of rupees were sold in days and weeks. In the rush of things, lot of substandard and poor-quality items were sold. Some drugs were successively touted as treatment for COVID, and these were sold in bulk in days. Their prices skyrocketed and these were taken off the shelf and reserved for black market. Pulse oximeter price increased ten times its old price and it was still difficult to find. Many other novel and ingenuous opportunities were found and exploited by businesses.
Work from home was extremely unacceptable to most businesses. One reason was that we are still operating mostly manually, not digitally. Computers are generally glorified typewriters, servers are makeshift, used, improvised computers and software is based on cracked versions. It is a compulsion for us to work on site, rather than off-site. The other thing is that presence of staff is mandatory, even if they do not work much. Psychologically and practically, it was a very difficult decision for the businesses to design and allow work from home. So, we found ways to work around work-from-home.
Employees had also never worked from home in their entire work life. They were also not physically, mentally and psychologically prepared to handle it. Our usual pattern is that we become totally irregular during weekends and holidays and these were extended holidays. We learned with difficulty to work from home, but it was mostly no-work-from-home, except for those who worked in digital space and were used to working remotely.
We also learned to test our limits by defying masks and social distancing. We held large gatherings wherever we could and attended many. Even when we used masks, it was rarely proper.
We did not learn compassion and honesty even in this fearful time. We saw people dying around us, but we kept making money through hoarding and black-marketing as if we would not die. We did not learn to be honest in our dealings and relations even at such crucial time. After a short initial scare, we have been living like it is business as usual.
Our public figures, such as politicians, religious leaders, public speakers, intellectuals, influencers, anchors, movers and shakers, all failed miserably to rally public towards common good, community work, compassion and social understanding. Pity that we did not learn what could have been learnt from this life changing event.
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